So I'm fairly angry right now because I had a very elaborate review typed up and tried to post it, but the forums forced me to re-login, erasing everything. I really should have saved a draft.
Anyways, disappointed as I am, I'll see if I can recount all of my thoughts on Yooka Laylee, an overall very enjoyable game.
- The Story -
Like most people, I thought the story left something to be desired as YL's motivation feels fairly weak when compared to other 3D platformers. Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie and Donkey Kong 64 all had very imminent threats of danger pushing the players to feel engaged in the story;
*BK had Grunty personally
come down and kidnap the main characters sister with her fate hanging over your head the whole game.
*BT had Grunty actually kill
your characters' best friend and a, "Meanwhile..." cutscene established that she was intending to zap the life out of the whole island.
*DK64 had K.Rool kidnap the Kongs and charge a death laser to blow up the whole island, a catastrophic possibility that hung over the whole game for the player, even if Donkey himself didn't know about it.
*Super Mario 64 for that matter had the disappearance of Princess Peach and Bowser taking over the castle to motivate you.
I guess that my point is that YL's story feels very impersonal and it doesn't feel like there is truly danger looming on the horizon. Yes, the game does have you gradually learn more about the nature of Capital B.'s organization and the nature of the magical book to some extent. Having a progression like that can be really good to unravel the mystery as you go, but I would have liked to see Capital B. make the whole matter personal right at the beginning of the game to get you invested as a viewer.
For example, I would have loved to see Capital B's grunt army show up on YL's doorstep and take the book themselves (maybe trashing their home) with Capital B. being present via a floating monitor or something to clearly explain to YL why he is taking the book. This would have established a connection to the main characters and a reason that they should hate him. Even just having Capital B. expose why he wanted that particular book in the opening cutscene would have made that object feel much more important.
That said, I really like how this first game already started creating intrigue for future installments (I'll try to refrain from spoilers). This made it feel more like a prologue to a greater story than a standalone great.
I'd also like to note that I really enjoyed Capital B. and Dr. Quack as villains... though Capital B. especially just lacked that connection to the main characters for most of the game that could have made it a classic rivalry. Capital B.'s boss fight was enjoyable for the most part, but I was slightly put off by how each phase was fairly long and the fight didn't really give accurate feedback to tell the player that they were doing it right (I spent a long time on the first phase, not sure if ground-pounding was even doing anything). As far as Quack goes, his quiz shows would have been fine if they didn't rely on knowledge that some players wouldn't necessarily know (example; the enemy name questions). That gave the impression that Quack's quizzes could potentially unfairly hinder progress to the more exciting parts of the game, which makes me think they could have been better utilized somewhere else in the game.
I'd also like to give a shout-out to the protagonists for how much potential they have if the series progresses. They felt like a mashup of Banjo-Kazooie and Gex (which is a good thing) and I really enjoyed how they took classic moves found in other platformers and gave them a spin that made them feel very much there own. I'm really hoping this game sells well enough to warrant a sequel because I'm already looking forward to their next adventure.
- The Expanding World Mechanic -
I personally found the expanding world mechanic to be a stroke of genius! However, I think it could have been implemented a bit more efficiently. I definitely enjoyed having big open worlds to explore, but they were almost TOO big right from the outset. I think it would have been more effective to have the levels start smaller and have 2-4 expansions that add one or two pieces at a time because, as it stands, the levels had a tendency to overwhelm me. That way, you could emphasize every new piece to make them feel more special and significant rather than throwing a ton out at a time and expecting the player to remember where everything is.
On that note, if this mechanic is ever used again, I would suggest having the new pieces' visibly fade into the scene with a magical particle effect when you enter an expanded book to make it clear to the player which parts they should be familiar with and which ones are new. As it stands, you get a glimpse of the new pieces, but since most things look similar in each level, it is really hard to tell what/where everything is and was. Building familiarity over time would probably be a lot more successful than immediately giving the player more than they know what to do with. Then again, some people probably prefer having the less focused nature, so your mileage probably varies on this one.
- Level Designs -
*HUB World: Like everything else I've mentioned, everything taking place in Hivory Towers came with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Thematically, it totally made sense for the majority of the game to take place in this factory-like setting, which in itself had more than its share of cool technology and neat environments. The double-edged sword here is that the HUB world couldn't naturally foreshadow the environments in the primarily nature-based book worlds as effectively as Grunty's Lair or Isle O' Hags from the BK series. I definitely still enjoyed it, but it definitely seemed like it made it harder to differentiate the HUB world environments in meaningful ways.
*Book Levels: Overall, I really liked the 5 levels and their expansiveness despite a little confusion here and there from their immense size. One of the good things about having 25 pagies/level was that it felt like the developers had ample room to explore how much they could do with each level concept. That allowed an interesting mix of having common pagies between each level (Rextro, minecarts, transformations, ghost writers and pagies) while still having plenty of pagies unique to each book's environment.
The hard part to judge is whether or not having 5 big levels to expand is better than the approach that YL's predecessors had. DK64 had 7 core levels, BT had 8 and BK had 9, so really this transition from more numerous smaller levels to fewer big ones is neither new not that different from what we've seen in years past. I guess the biggest challenge each of YL's levels has is making a connection to the player because regardless of whether or not you like each level, you are probably going to spend a lot of time there. Banjo-Kazooie was much more forgiving as if you didn't like one level, there were still eight others that you probably did like. Having 9 levels also gave Banjo-Kazooie to really diversify the level selections, which was a luxury that only goes so far with any fewer.
*Another thing I probably should have mentioned earlier is that being based around the book theme, I wish Yooka Laylee would have done more to make the book environments feel like they were in books. Most of the supporting cast can apparently travel from one book world to another, which is fine, though I would have liked to see each book get a set of characters that treated the book environments as if they were the edge of their universe. I remember watching old Gumby cartoons where Gumby would travel into a book world and the characters were seemingly unaware that they existed within a book. Star Trek: The Next Generation had a handful of holodeck episodes too where the crew inserted themselves into a story that ran with no knowledge that they were fictional characters in the Star Trek universe. I wish YL would have made the book world seem more like that to help the immersion factor. Not that it matters, but it would also have been cool if the story of Yooka Laylee was implied in the opening cutscene to all exist within a book to bring the whole concept full-circle, complete with a narrator like the one in the opening cutscene for Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.
- Side Characters and Mini Games -
*sigh* I know a lot of people have been attacking the Rextro arcade games and Kartos sections and sadly, to some extent I have to agree. I generally didn't have a problem with Rextro, though it is easy to understand why hiding essential collectibles like pagies in his games made people angry. By diverting the game play into a new set of controls that the player may or may not like for these arcade games, you're bound to give at least some people a frustrating experience. This is why I kinda wish that Rextro would have given away play tonics instead for beating his game... or maybe unlockable multiplayer characters or something. You know, something where his arcade games didn't feel required, but also rewarded those who enjoyed or were otherwise willing to play Rextro's game with something that wasn't completely necessary.
Kartos was the one that did frustrate me, particularly in Capital Cashino. The sad thing is that the Kartos minigame problem probably could be solved by mapping the boost button to a different button instead of forward on the joystick. Because it is mapped to the forward joystick, there was a lot of times where I unintentionally triggered the boost and got them killed. Mapping the boost to a different button could have made it so that you'd have to deliberately trigger it. I like Kartos as a character and I do think the minigames could be polished up later in the series to make players not hate them (at least as much.)
On the more positive side, I want to give props to the creative re-imagining of level-based transformations for this game. The transformations were slightly difficult to control at times, but they were very inventive and kept me intrigued to find what the next one would be. While I'm generally fine with the 5-level format, it did feel like the transformation mechanic was one that got stunted right as it was getting good because the game was already over.
Another character that I thoroughly enjoyed was Trowser on account of him feeling(insert innuendos here) like he had the most personality of all the supporting cast. He was very much like the Mumbo or Bottles of this game and I expect that we'll see him again eventually.
On the additional supporting cast, I really liked the Knights of Hamelot, Shovel Knight, Clara and Duke (though he only appeared once). Most of them showed up 2-3 times, which was perfect as they were kind of second-string NPC's that didn't need to be in every level and actually made me fonder of them. They were like the Gobi of this game. Like the transformations, I was just disappointed by the fact that my adventures with them were already over by the time I got to the last level.
- Collectibles -
I really liked the character of the pagies. They had a lot more personality than just about every other collectable ever which led to some genuinely funny situations later in the game.
On the subject of the quills, I don't think they did a very good job leading the players and felt like they were more scattered than the pagies on most occasions. If there is a next time, I'd prefer that the quills spend more time leading you to areas of interest because it took considerably more effort to find missing quills then it did to find the primary collectible, pagies.
- Final Thoughts: That response was long-winded. I hope my criticisms and desires for the series came off well because I wouldn't type a response this long twice in a row if I didn't care. It's hard to articulate just how I feel about Yooka Laylee because it isn't Banjo-Kazooie, which isn't a bad thing at all, but those are big shoes to fill/be-compared-to regardless. Overall, I really enjoyed Yooka Laylee to the point where I already want to play it a second time. On a personal level, Yooka Laylee has also helped me understand what the Unity engine is capable of as I am pursuing a game development career... seeing what Playtonic accomplished here has helped me realize what I might be able to achieve with the tools within my grasp.
I'm hoping this is the start of a bright future for the Yooka Laylee series. I have every confidence that the series will only get better from here and if a Two-ka Laylee is ever announced, you can bet I'll be looking forward to it.